The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup on Sunday to cap the 2015-16 NHL season, and so as per Sports on Earth tradition, that means it's time to rank each of the league's franchises based on how tortured their fan bases are. Will Leitch, who's done these rankings for the NFL, NBA and MLB, offered up this brief explanation of the criteria:
It's a ranking of every team's fan base, from most to least spoiled. I want to find out who deserves it the most: whom you, as a disinterested party, should be cheering for next year. Lots of factors are involved here: fan loyalty, passion, historical success, particularly painful eras, near-miss title chances, current roster, any ineffable notion that just occurs to me while I'm putting this list together. I'm doing my best to give an honest accounting here. This ranking will get a lot better once all of you have had a chance to look at it and tell me what I got wrong.
And for last year's NHL rankings, I added the following addendum:
The list is a snapshot of suffering at the moment, so recent play is weighed a bit more heavily than historic success -- especially if a generation or two (or more) has passed since a team's last championship. The goal of all hockey fans is to see their team win the Cup at least once, so that's a major factor, albeit hardly the only one. One last note: I didn't consider whether a fan base is generally well-liked (or not well-liked), though I did factor in how passionate they are. It hurts a devoted fan base even more, after all, when its team's not good.
Here we go.
(All Stanley Cup numbers are since the founding of the NHL in 1917 only.)
30. Pittsburgh Penguins (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 5. Stanley Cup wins: 4. Most recent title: 2016.)
You win the Cup, you drop to the bottom of the suffering list. No exceptions.
29. Chicago Blackhawks (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 13. Stanley Cup wins: 6. Most recent title: 2015.)
If we were going to make an exception, though, it'd be for the Hawks, who've won three titles since 2010, and despite an early exit from this year's playoffs still have plenty of talent.
28. Los Angeles Kings (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 3. Stanley Cup wins: 2. Most recent title: 2014.)
The Kings are in a similar position to Chicago: multiple recent titles after a long wait. (In the case of L.A., that wait dated to the franchise's founding in 1967-68.) The Kings missed the playoffs entirely in 2015, but they were back this year after a regular season in which they were one of the top possession teams in the league.
27. Detroit Red Wings (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 24. Stanley Cup wins: 11. Most recent title: 2008.)
As consistent a franchise as there is in the NHL: postseason appearances every year, fairly regular titles over the past two decades, and a long line of stars. The Wings move up a couple of spots, however, because they're getting further and further away from their most recent stretch of true contention. Plus: Fans most likely won't have Pavel Datsyuk to watch every night, which always made things more fun.
26. Tampa Bay Lightning (Stanley Cup appearances: 2. Stanley Cup wins: 1. Most recent title: 2004.)
For the first time, we encounter the question of whether it's better to lose in heartbreaking fashion, or never get the chance to lose a big game at all. With the Lightning, one has to weigh the following factors: They've only been around since 1992, and they've won a Cup, albeit 12 years ago. In more recent years, they went to the Final in 2015, but have twice lost a conference final Game 7 -- in 2011 and again this year. The Lightning have a young, talented roster and have established themselves as one of the East's most dangerous teams. And so that hope, paired with relative postseason success, helps balance out the tough losses.
25. Boston Bruins (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 19. Stanley Cup wins: 6. Most recent title: 2011.)
They won a Cup in 2011, but they've now missed the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. They've won just the one title since 1973, but again, recency matters on a list like this. Bill Simmons, himself a Bruins fan, once proposed that fans shouldn't get to complain about their team for five years after a title, so if you believe in that kind of thing, that window is just now closing in Boston.
24. New Jersey Devils (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 5. Stanley Cup wins: 3. Most recent title: 2003.)
Things haven't been great in New Jersey in recent years. The Devils haven't been back to the playoffs since reaching the Final in 2012, and haven't made much noise in the postseason since the 2004-05 lockout. But the Devils had so much success during the Stevens-Brodeur era that it largely balances out what's happened since, even if they'll slowly creep up this list as the franchise gets further away from those glory days.
23. Colorado Avalanche (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 2. Stanley Cup wins: 2. Most recent title: 2001.)
Like last year, we're not counting their years as the Nordiques in Quebec. Colorado's glory years roughly overlapped with the Devils', and the Avalanche haven't had a ton of recent success, either. But we're slotting them higher than New Jersey; ultimately, two titles in just two decades in existence is pretty great.
22. Dallas Stars (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 2. Stanley Cup wins: 1. Most recent title: 1999.)
Another team that's only been around since the '90s, though its one title is more distant than Tampa Bay's Cup, or the most recent one for Colorado. The Stars made a big leap this year, and while their season ended with a disappointing second-round loss, the franchise is in a good place right now. (It'll be in a great place if they can find a reliable goaltender.)
21. Montreal Canadiens (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 29. Stanley Cup wins: 22. Most recent title: 1993.)
The passion of the fan base factors in here. A 23-year drought without a Cup is an eternity in Montreal, and the way their season fell apart this year was particularly cruel and bizarre. That said, a fan of a certain age can remember a time when the Habs won the Cup pretty much every year.
20. Winnipeg Jets (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 0. Stanley Cup wins: 0.)
Looking back, I ranked Winnipeg a little too high last year. Remember: This ranking doesn't consider their disastrous time in Atlanta. I'm also not counting the pain of losing the original Jets to Phoenix. And so while the Jets 2.0 have enjoyed virtually no success since moving north -- the high point so far has been getting swept in the first round last year -- five seasons just isn't enough to build up much pain, especially considering how excited fans were just to get a team back in the first place.
19. Carolina Hurricanes (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 2. Stanley Cup wins: 1. Most recent title: 2006.)
Another team that hasn't been around all that long -- it moved from Hartford in 1997 -- and has won a Cup. But the Hurricanes have been pretty lousy since then: They've made the playoffs just once since their 2006 title, a nice run to the conference finals in '09. They were improved this season, but otherwise they've had neither success nor heartbreak in recent years. Just a whole lot of bad hockey.
18. Anaheim Ducks (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 2. Stanley Cup wins: 1. Most recent title: 2007.)
Here's another question you encounter on a list like this: How tortured are fans who've seen their teams have success in the regular season, but not in the playoffs? The Ducks have won four straight division titles, but they failed to reach the Final in all of those seasons and lost a Game 7 along the way. That's pretty rough, but those last four years are countered by a Cup win less than a decade ago, and plenty of competitive Ducks teams over the past 15 years. And so Anaheim moves up a few places after its latest disappointing playoff exit.
17. Minnesota Wild (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 0. Stanley Cup wins: 0.)
Of the three franchises from the last round of expansion that still play in their original cities, the Wild are the least tortured. That doesn't mean they've had success, exactly: They've made the playoffs more often than they've missed them since the 2004-05 lockout (barely), but they didn't get past the second round in any of those seasons, even with the splashy signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Their deepest postseason run, meanwhile, came a long 13 years ago. The franchise itself, at least, is healthy, and the consistent sellouts keep things from getting too dreary.
16. New York Rangers (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 11. Stanley Cup wins: 4. Most recent title: 1994.)
The Rangers have won just one title in the last 76 years, and they move up a spot this year because while they've been among the league's most competitive teams in recent years, their window may be closing, and rougher times could be coming.
15. Nashville Predators (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 0. Stanley Cup wins: 0.)
The Preds are still a relatively new franchise, but they did have some expectations under Barry Trotz -- expectations they didn't live up to. They've yet to advance past the second round of the playoffs, but what really sets them apart from Minnesota (a similarly young franchise with a similarly mediocre history) is that there was a time when it looked like the team might move out of Nashville. Dealing with that as a fan is the absolute worst.
14. Columbus Blue Jackets (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 0. Stanley Cup wins: 0.)
Another young franchise, but without even the mild success of Minnesota and Nashville. Columbus has reached the playoffs just twice in its history, and has won a grand total of two playoff games. And though the team appeared to be on an upswing, this year was a disaster. On the one hand, low expectations mean less disappointment. On the other hand, it's painful to watch a team consistently struggle as much as the Blue Jackets have since entering the league in 2000.
13. Edmonton Oilers (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 7. Stanley Cup wins: 5. Most recent title: 1990.)
Here's how frustrating the past decade has been in Edmonton: The Oilers are in the top half of this list even though their fans got to watch one of the most exciting teams ever run off five Cups between 1984 and 1990. But despite landing four of the last six top overall draft picks, the Oilers haven't reached the playoffs since getting to the Final in 2006. That's a special kind of frustration: They're not just perpetually rebuilding, but also continually landing the most hyped prospect of the year, only to have that hope dissolve into yet more disappointment. On the bright side: Connor McDavid looks like the real deal.
12. Calgary Flames (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 3. Stanley Cup wins: 1. Most recent title: 1989.)
They've got a similarly long Stanley Cup drought as the Oilers, but lack both the incredible dynasty years and the frustration of watching top overall picks fail to turn the franchise around. The latter doesn't fully cancel out the former in our book, though, so we'll keep the Flames ahead of their rival, especially since Calgary hasn't had much playoff success, either, since the 2004-05 lockout.
11. Ottawa Senators (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 1. Stanley Cup wins: 0.)
The most comparable team to the Senators is Florida, which entered the league at roughly the same time, has one Cup Final appearance, but has yet to win a championship. Historically, Ottawa has at least been more consistently competitive, so we're slotting them behind Florida.
10. Florida Panthers (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 1. Stanley Cup wins: 0.)
Panthers fans had a fun season, between the division title, the joy of Jaromir Jagr, the return of the rats, and Spacey in Space. But the franchise's overall history is pretty bleak: Just once has it advanced past the first round (a Cup Final run in 1996), and it's reached the postseason just twice in the last 15 years. Remember the question of whether it's better to lose in heartbreaking fashion, or never even get the chance to lose such a game? The Panthers never really get that chance, which is torture in its own way.
9. Philadelphia Flyers (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 8. Stanley Cup wins: 2. Most recent title: 1975.)
Re-reading last year's list, I realize now that Philly is more tortured than its 2015 ranking of 11th would suggest. The Flyers have a rabid fan base and haven't won a title in more than 40 years. Yes, they've been relatively consistent over the years. And, they've had several of Finals appearances since their last Cup victory. But four decades (and counting) is a long time for a fan base as passionate as the Flyers', especially since they've seen all their biggest rivals win at least once over that span.
8. San Jose Sharks (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 1. Stanley Cup wins: 0.)
The Sharks' history of playoff disappointments has been well documented in recent weeks, mostly because of the franchise's first-ever trip to the Stanley Cup Final. Getting there and losing to a superior Penguins team doesn't quite erase the frustration of the past decade-plus -- they'll need their first title for that -- but San Jose fans had more to cheer for this spring than they ever have before.
7. Arizona Coyotes (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 0. Stanley Cup wins: 0.)
The Coyotes have only been around (in Arizona, at least) since 1996, but boy have they packed in a lot of drama over the last 20 years. The relative lack of success on the ice is bad enough, but the constant threat of relocation has hung over the franchise for a good chunk of its history.
6. New York Islanders (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 5. Stanley Cup wins: 4. Most recent title: 1983.)
Like the Oilers, the Islanders put together a dynasty in the 1980s and haven't won a title since. The Isles' most recent Cup came seven years before Edmonton's most recent title, but New York is so much higher on this list because of the almost comical low points the franchise has hit since those glory days. The same franchise that gave us owner John Spano and general manager Mike Milbury also gave us Rick DiPietro's 15-year contract, the much-maligned fisherman logo, and chatter that the franchise might not last in New York. Fans this year could finally cheer the team's first postseason series win since 1993, but the move to Brooklyn proved to be complicated, and there's still no shaking the feeling that they're playing in an arena built for basketball first.
5. Washington Capitals (Stanley Cup Final appearance: 1. Stanley Cup wins: 0.)
After the Caps ran away with the Presidents' Trophy and then again failed to get out of the second round of the playoffs, I expected they'd move up in these rankings. But the four most tortured fan bases are so tortured that Washington couldn't pass any of them, even after its team's most disappointing spring yet. The team has been around since 1974 and has never won a Cup, and it hasn't come especially close during the Alexander Ovechkin era. This year looked like it might finally be the Caps' year, but it once again ended in the second round.
4. St. Louis Blues (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 3. Stanley Cup wins: 0.)
Next year marks 50 years since St. Louis entered the league, and it still hasn't won a Stanley Cup. The Blues went on their deepest playoff run in 15 years this spring, but like the Capitals, they've had trouble translating good regular-season play into postseason success.
3. Vancouver Canucks (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 3. Stanley Cup wins: 0.)
It's here we're forced to finally consider what kind of losses are the worst for fans to live through. Getting swept 4-0 in a series, or losing a Game 7 nailbiter? Is it worse to show promise in the regular season and choke early in the postseason, or to go on a deep run and get so far you can pick out individual saves that could have changed the series? In the case of the Canucks, who haven't won the Cup since entering the league in 1970, the real torture came in the form of a pair of losses in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final (in 1994 and 2011). For such a dedicated fan base, it's hard to watch a team get so close on two different occasions and not be able to finish the job.
2. Buffalo Sabres (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 2. Stanley Cup wins: 0.)
Like Vancouver, Buffalo has been in the league since 1970 and never won a Cup. And thanks to Brett Hull, the Sabres' last trip to the Final (17 years ago) ended in controversial fashion. Jack Eichel is here to save the day, but it's still tough to be a Sabres fan -- and Sabres fans are among the best in hockey. To make matters worse, according to this piece of merch spotted in China, they've apparently had to watch the NFL's Bills win a Stanley Cup before they did.
1. Toronto Maple Leafs (Stanley Cup Final appearances: 19. Stanley Cup wins: 13. Last title: 1967.)
The Leafs' Stanley Cup drought will hit 50 years next spring, and that'd be a crazy-long time even for an organization that didn't face such media scrutiny in Canada's biggest city, and even if it didn't play in front of such passionate, desperate fans who so badly want another title. Seeing Phil Kessel lift the Cup had to be a complicated thing, even if his drama in Toronto had more to do with the press than with the fans. But what puts the Leafs at the top of this list is just how high the stakes are now. They've assembled an All-Star front office, freed up some cap space (in part by moving Kessel), and will have the first pick in this year's draft. There is more pressure to win now (or at least whenever this phase of the re-build is complete) -- which is to say, things better start turning around soon for those poor Maple Leafs fans.